It begins with a confident declaration of identity – a shouted “Basement Jaxx” – followed by a remarkably skittish, unsure intro, something different for this usually-confident “band.” Basement Jaxx is one of those groups, a poly-stylistic British electronic band who make great (and frequent) use of guest vocalists and scoring several generally dissimilar hits, all under the umbrella of populist house. Known for their mishmash of styles, ebullient production and manipulated vocals, Scars is no exception. Where 2007’s Crazy Itch Radio was unattractively complacent and downright boring, Scars is effervescent, technicolour, and every bit as adventurous as its ridiculous cover – a superb mess of assorted parts making for an ear-catching and undeniably distinct whole.
The title track starts the album in a reserved fashion, until all its elements boil over in a near-cathartic climax. Featuring the rather odd grouping of American singer Kelis and British performers Meleka and Chipmunk, it’s a slightly-creepy psychedelic track featuring bombastic chopped-and-screwed strings and choir vocals. First single “Raindrops” starts innocently, the rumblings of something big bubbling up from under the surface. And when they do, the results are joyous – it’s a celebration of life, of music, of sex, whatever cheesy tag you’d like to throw at it. The song trades off its hushed verse for a grandiose chorus, and back again, as if submerging under the ocean and periodically re-emerging; an almost unbearable rush of energy with brief periods of respite. The vocals (the duo’s own – unlike the last album, not every song features a guest singer) are tweaked beyond gender, cascading and veering effortlessly all over the track like the best Basement Jaxx songs of yore.
Beyond these two songs, the “psychedelic” aspect comes to mind repeatedly; for all its futurism and self-consciously hi-tech sound, the Basement Jaxx on Scars is a duo with the sixties in mind. The music here is unapologetically rooted in US and UK psychedelic music, sixties garage rock, and Motown. While “Raindrops” is the obvious highlight of the album, it’s a relief that some of the tracks actually compare. In fact, for its first half at least, Scars is admirably consistent. The stable of guest singers here is perhaps the most solid of all past Jaxx albums, and while there are no major surprises or daring genre excursions like Dizzee Rascal, for the most part, the singers they chose do well. Sam Sparro unexpectedly tears apart his track, the contradictory dayglo melancholy of “Feelings Gone” sounding like an entirely appealing hybrid of Prince and Lionel Richie. It’s the closest the album comes to topping “Raindrops.” “Saga” features Santigold performing well in her distinctively nasal tenor, a natural fit for the band. The jaunty and ebullient “My Turn” is another surprise – seeing the name “Lightspeed Champion” in the credits not only brings to mind disappointingly “indie” compromise but also, well, naptime. Lightspeed Champion gives an enjoyable — if not totally distinctive – vocal performance, however, set to a wonderful bouncy distorted beat by Jaxx. Expertly weaved with incongruously natural sounds of acoustic guitar and violin, it makes for a surprisingly solid track.
Scars has its highlights, but there is also a smattering of mediocre, electropop-by-numbers tracks that are simply unimpressive. “She’s No Good” features a predictable and hackneyed swing sound, and Yoko Ono brings little of interest – or of her own intrinsic weirdness – to the disappointing “Day of the Sunflowers/We March On.” The only sign of her uncompromising self we get to glimpse is her now played-out orgasm sounds as the track fades out. The great, chilled “A Possibility” buoyed by a hypnotic slide guitar riff is saddled with a completely forgettable vocal by Amp Fiddler, and the album’s closing trio of tracks falls victim to the same fate. There is, at least. only one terrible track amidst all the mediocrity; the inexcusably awful “Twerk,” featuring a silly production job that sounds like a poor, ham-fisted attempt at incorporating various current UK trends like funky or wonky. Carelessly autotuned vocals courtesy of Yo Majesty and a sloppy interpolation of “Maniac” (the song from Flashdance) only make things worse.
Scars as a whole isn’t exactly an enlightening or enriching experience, but it’s a nice reassurance after the by-numbers feel of Crazy Itch Radio, and its best tracks are among the best (and most fun) of the year. The duo sounds rejuvenated, playing with new sounds and rhythms. And while these forays into new styles and genres aren’t always successful (“Twerk,” cough), it’s at least nice to hear the band trying. As unfortunately front-loaded as it may be (but what a front!), it’s hard not to appreciate it, if not love it, on those terms alone. Let’s be honest: it’s remarkable that Basement Jaxx sounds as relative and vital as it does in 2009, and a partial rejuvenation is still better than none at all.